Every old theater is supposed to be haunted.
If that’s the case, ghosts inside the Schenectady Civic Playhouse will be in high spirits Sunday afternoon. Six members of the Schenectady Civic Players troupe will celebrate Halloween by reading short tales of Gothic horror inside the South Church Street theater. The ethereal entertainment is free of charge — for both living and departed — and begins at 2:30.
Nouns, verbs and adjectives can deliver chills, thrills and anxiety. College literary professors say books should not be forgotten when people are in black and orange moods. They believe the written word can compete with movies that put mummies, werewolves and vampires in both limelight and moonlight.
Stockade resident Matthew Moross will direct the Playhouse show. He said the Players have been participating in staged readings since the acting troupe’s 80th anniversary in 2005.
“There’s usually one in the fall, two in the winter and one in the spring,” he said. “This is the first time the staged reading has fallen on Halloween, so we decided to do some ghost stories.”
SCP Staged Reading for Halloween
WHEN: 2:30 p.m. Sunday
WHERE: Schenectady Civic Playhouse, 12 S. Church St.
HOW MUCH: Free
MORE INFO: www.civicplayers.org
Words by Edgar Allan Poe, H.G. Wells, Saki and Ambrose Bierce will be in the air. Moross is also considering British writers Algernon Blackwood and E.F. Benson. New England’s spooky H.P. Lovecraft may also be represented.
Moross said Wells may be best remembered for science-fiction frights such as “The War of the Worlds” and “The Time Machine,” but didn’t need belligerent martians and flight through the ages to raise goose bumps. In “The Island of Doctor Moreau,” for instance, the protagonist is trapped on an island where animals have been spliced into grim versions of human beings.
“Some of his short stories are really very funny and very scary at the same time,” Moross said.
Actors will read pieces in their entirety, with performances lasting between 10 and 15 minutes. That way, patrons not impressed by Bierce will only have to wait a few minutes for inspiration from Blackwood or Lovecraft.
Holly Jackson, visiting assistant professor in the English department at Skidmore College, has found Poe’s stories remain popular more than 160 years after the writer’s death.
“I’m teaching a course called ‘American Gothic Fiction’ this semester, and my students really enjoyed ‘The Black Cat,’ which is about how people can be scarier than the supernatural and more beastly than animals,” Jackson said.
“ ‘The Premature Burial,’ which ends by warning us that reading scary stories such as this one is dangerous, and ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’ a classic haunted house tale in which the distinction between reality and scary stories collapses, are two others.”
Jackson said Washington Irving’s “Legend of Sleepy Hollow” also should be required reading in October. She said people know the story about Ichabod Crane’s trouble with the Headless Horseman, but might try reading between the lines.
“Beneath the familiar plot, I think Irving is interested in some genuinely scary questions in early America,” Jackson said. “Will the violence of the American Revolution haunt the nation that it formed? Does democracy give ‘the people’ the power to police their communities, expelling outsiders or troublesome elements by violence or even murder?”
Phyllis Roth, professor emerita of English at Skidmore, reminds scare fans that many movies and plays that specialize in fright were on the page before they were on the stage.
“The best stories, those that terrify generation after generation, are adapted to film and even live theater over and over again, are those that tap into some profound fears,” Roth said.
“Those fears are as profound as they are because, again generation after generation, they are unavoidable, part of human nature.”
Terror can also come in poetry. Eileen Abrahams, assistant professor of humanities and social sciences at Schenectady County Community College, likes Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” from 1862. In the poem, sisters Laura and Lizzie are vexed by goblin men who live near their home.
“It’s a narrative, it’s in very simple language,” Abrahams said.
“It’s often included in children’s literature anthologies as well as Victorian literature anthologies. It’s a very scary piece.”
Kate Laity, associate professor of English at The College of Saint Rose in Albany, puts Ray Bradbury on her autumn reading list. Peeks at pieces in “The October Country,” the author’s 1955 collection of short stories, can startle and surprise.
“There are very different kinds of stories that are spooky in all kinds of different ways,” Laity said. “There’s ‘The Jar,’ which is about this farmer that buys this jar from a traveling carnival, no one’s quite sure what’s in the jar, but they’re endlessly fascinated by it. It’s never quite clear what’s in it, but it becomes this thing that changes people’s lives and not in good ways, either. And there’s ‘The Small Assassin,’ about this woman who becomes convinced her baby is trying to kill her.”
Moross said actors participating in the Halloween literature festival may wear light makeup. But there will be no costumes.
“We’ll let the spoken word create the mood,” he said.
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